Consider this journal article by John Maynard Keynes, a British economist who died in 1946 (the article in question was published in 1943). The journal (still published) is based in the UK, and thus, it should be subject to UK copyright law.

According to UK law, the copyright of the work expires 70 years after the death of the author. For the case of Keynes, that is 2017. Similarly, the layout of the published edition has copyright for 25 years only. Thus, both copyrights have already expired.

However, the article (and many other articles in a similar situation, as the journal was created in 1891) are not freely available. They can only be accessed through JSTOR, as all links redirect to it (e.g. this and this). JSTOR does not allow free access (as in freedom of speech), albeit has a restricted form of free access (as in free beer), after registration, only for three articles and lasting 14 days.

Why does the publisher do not release the material to the public domain if the copyright has already expired? Do they have any obligation to do so, or it is a matter of active individuals/organisations to "exercise" that right? As such, can I request to them to give me access for free? As far as I understand, as a British resident (?), I am myself "entitled" to make that work available in the public domain, without infringing the copyright of the author or publisher.

  • You should read the JSTOR TOS: about.jstor.org/terms. You are not entitled to distribute the derivative work that is available through JSTOR, though if you legally acquire a copy on your own, you could create your own derivative. Recall that PDFs did not exist when the article was first published. – user6726 Mar 3 '17 at 17:34
  • @user6726 So, to put it in simple words. I cannot download a PDF from their site and distribute it, because the pdf format in which the article is written was created (digitalised) less than 25 years ago. Instead, I can go to a library, get a physical copy of the old journal, whose 25 years expired, scan it, and then distribute that as my own pdf? – abracadabra Mar 4 '17 at 9:49
  • Yes (assuming the correctness of the layout protection) – user6726 Mar 4 '17 at 16:39

You misunderstand the nature of copyright.

Holding copyright allows you to decide how the work can be copied: there is no obligation on you to publish it if you don't want to. After your copyright expires you don't have to publish it either: the only thing that has changed is you can no longer prevent anyone making a copy.

The lost works of Aristotle are in the public domain - if you can find them you can make as many copes as you like.

  • By "work" you mean the author's original text, the format it was presented/published, both? – abracadabra Mar 4 '17 at 9:51

Keynes' article may now be in the public domain. However, that does not mean that any reproduction of his works are freely available to anyone. JSTOR is providing a service, a database, and may thus charge anyone who wants to have access to it. Furthermore, a printed journal will not be free only because its content is in the public domain. So, you will have to find a medium that has reproduced Keynes' article. You then can copy it and reproduce it as you see fit.

  • As the UK copyright law states (link in the question), the layout of a publication loses copyrights after 25 years of publication. So it is the case that the journal article is already in the public domain. So, what I take from your question, is that it is not JSTOR whom I should ask for the document but the original publishers? – abracadabra Mar 3 '17 at 11:06
  • 1
    No, nobody is required to provide you with any reproduction. Neither free, nor for consideration. Regardless of any copyright. You are confusing the article with the medium it is embodied in. If you want freely obtain the article, you have to find access to it which is free of charge. This could be a library or googling for a copy of the original printed version of it. – Singulaere Entitaet Mar 3 '17 at 11:15
  • Out of curiosity, would it be legal for me to copy jstor's copy of the article, word for word, and publish it online? To be specific, I might write down every word on jstor's version of the article onto a notepad file, after which I share this notepad file. – Shazamo Morebucks Mar 3 '17 at 14:43
  • 1
    @ShazamoMorebucks In the US, copying the entire article wouldn't be fair use: law.stackexchange.com/questions/7683/… And read en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_v._Swartz – BlueDogRanch Mar 3 '17 at 16:17
  • @BlueDogRanch Thanks for your reply. After reading the case summary, I understand it as it being illegal to copy a journal article from JSTOR for potentially public use. What I was wondering was if JSTOR had a copy of an article that was in the public domain (such as the article by Keynes might have been), would it be legal for someone with a JSTOR subscription to download JSTOR's copy of the article, and then to transcript it themselves into a new format (such as by typing the words out onto a notepad file, or creating an audio version), and then publishing that new file online. – Shazamo Morebucks Mar 3 '17 at 16:35

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.